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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                       241
night was calm, the water dripped from the oars like
drops of quicksilver, and seemed as heavy. The rowlocks
clicked softly, a corn-crake creaked somewhere, and from
far away the mournful screech of an owl came barely
audible across the water.
"You can hardly believe that there's war raging near
by," said Zinochka softly. "Will you write to me, com-
rades? Now you, Alexei Petrovich, you will write to me,
won't you? Even if it's only a short note. I'll give some
addressed postcards to take with you, shall I? You'll write:
'Alive and well, greetings,' and drop it into a letter-box,
all right?..."
"I can't tell you how glad I am to go. Hell! I've had
enough of idling. My hands are itching for work!" cried
Again they all fell silent. The tiny waves lapped softly
and gently against the sides of the boat, the water gurgled
sleepily under its keel and spread out in a glistening angle
from its stern. The mist dispersed and a ruffled, bluish
moonbeam stretched across the water from the shore,
lighting up the patches of water-lily leaves.
"Let's sing," suggested Zinochka, and without waiting
for a reply started the song about the ash-tree.
She sang the first couplet sadly, alone, but the next was
taken up by Major Struchkov in a fine, deep baritone. He
had never sung before, and Alexei had not even suspected
that he had such a beautiful, mellow voice. The pensive and
passionate strains of this song rolled over the smooth
water; the two fresh voices, male and female, supported
each other in their longing. Alexei recalled the slender
ash-tree with the solitary bunch of berries outside the
window of his room, and large-eyed Varya in the under-
ground village. Then everything vanished—the lake, the
wonderful moonlight, the boat and the singers—and in the
silvery mist he saw the girl from Kamyshin, but not the
Olya that had sat among the daisies in the flowery mead-
ow, but a different, unfamiliar girl, weary-looking, with
cheeks sunburnt in patches, cracked lips, in a sweat-
stained tunic, wielding a spade somewhere in the steppe
near Stalingrad.
He dropped the oars and joined to sing the last couplet
of the song.